Released: September 2016
Zombie films are often binary things. They either revolutionise the genre, bringing concepts to it that you had never before considered could be explored using the conceit of the undead, or they are formulaic, churned out horror films to fill the summer holiday seats at cinemas. Frankly, it often seems that no one other than George Romero should be doing zombie films, as they just almost always fall so short of what they can and should be aiming for. Pleasingly, however, The Girl With All The Gifts proves that is never advisable to give up on a genre altogether. It came and went with very little noise last year, but tore up the zombie rule book and film critics should have been shouting about it from the rooftops.
The background is familiar, although the usual vagueness around the cause of the zombies is eschewed in this case. A fungal infection has turn most of the human race into “hungries”, stumbling, non-thinking beings, who just scent out and eat living brains. There’s a military base holding out, as there often is. As per Day of the Dead, experiments as being conducted on live specimens to find a cure. However, in this film, the live specimens aren’t taken from the hoards of hungries outside the base, but are a small number of second-generation hungries. These children were in the womb of an infected parent, and are something of a human-hungry hybrid. They are being educated, and appear just like normal children, but all the humans must wear masking gel to stop the children reverting to a feral state and fighting desperately to attack and eat their carers.
The three main attitudes to the hungries are summed up neatly by the three main characters. The teacher, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) believes in their inner humanity. They are just sick, and we must prove our own humanity in how we treat them. The military man, Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), would kill them all in a heartbeat if he thought there was any chance of getting all of them. As it is, he is resigned to needing a few to experiment on in the hope of finding a way to restore order outside the base. Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is the lead scientist looking for that cure, but doesn’t really believe in it. She’s hoping for some kind of vaccine to save those uninfected, but thinks those already infected cannot be brought back. The children that seem so intelligent are just husks, mimicking human behaviour in order to propagate.
When the base is overwhelmed and these three must flee together, taking with them a highly intelligent girl/specimen called Melanie (a stupendous debut from young Sennia Nanua), these differing approaches collide to throw up some very timely and important questions about how humans treat “the other”, those things we are afraid of, those things that seem almost, but not exactly, like us. Should we succumb to fear and wish to expel or exterminate it, or use genoristy of spirit to bridge the small gap that divides us, or believe the gap is so wide that nothing could ever bring the two sides together? Finally, we have a zombie film that transforms the question of “how do humans survive this invasion?” into “why should humans survive this invasion?”. Why are we any better than the hungries? Why should we get to choose?
Outstanding performances from all involved, a haunting and tension building soundtrack, instantly recognisable as the work of the same artist behind Channel 4’s Utopia, and some excellent CGI-use in building a believable abandoned London all work together to create an absorbing and complete-feeling world that remains frighteningly real even when you are back out in the daylight.